Last week on Tips-y Tuesday we talked about how to stay on track and write every day. This week I’d like to talk about a strategy for writing novels that I’ve recently employed: writing the query letter first.
For those unaware, the query letter is the short letter you write to prospective literary agents once you’ve finished your manuscript. It consists of a short greeting, a back-of-the-book summary of your novel, any writing credentials you have, and that’s about it.
Now that may not sound so bad, but writing the query letter can be one of the most frustrating and stressful parts of writing a novel. I used to tell my writing group that writing the manuscript is the easy part, afterwards comes the hard part.
Part of the reason it’s so difficult is because you’re suddenly forced to condense possibly years of work and a hundred or more pages that have your heart and soul invested in them… into about 300 words.
A typical writer in the process of crafting a typical query letter.
Writing query letters used to drive me insane. How could I possibly tell prospective agents about the depths of my characters, the intricacies of my plots, the richness of my setting in little more than a sound-byte?
That’s why I recommend doing something unconventional: writing the query letter before you even start your manuscript, when you know as little as possible about your story.
Before you write your manuscript, you may have a general idea or outline of what your book will be like. But chances are it’s going to evolve a lot as you write it. The succulent details and plot-twists and character traits probably aren’t chiseled in stone yet, they’re nice and flexible, which is why this is a perfect time to stretch them in the right direction.
To do that, all you have to do is write the perfect query letter. And by that I don’t mean an absolutely flawless one, but one that – when you show it to people – makes them go: “Ooh! I’d like to read that.”
So basically, you get to write the ultimate back-of-the-book summary. That means you goal is to basically just make your summary as exciting and awesome as possible. Don’t worry if you need to throw some things into your query that don’t exist in your outline – that’s exactly the reason you’re doing this first, so you can put them into your book later!
For example, in my recent book, I decided my query needed more tension, so I decided to just have the moon explode. It doesn’t get any more intense than that! Of course that didn’t actually make it into my final draft, but something very similar did, and it’s unlikely I would’ve ever pursued that path had I not written the query first, realized I needed more tension, and added it in.
We’ve talked a bit about the book my wife is writing, so here’s an abbreviated example of what her query letter might have looked like when she only had a vague idea of what the story would be like versus after we made some changes:
Sixteen-year-old Dionara loves dragons. She also loves pizza. When she gets her own dragon from her father, she is super happy. Now she can fight in tournaments and maybe even find her sister.
Enh. Pretty bland. It’s missing some stuff to really draw me in. If my wife showed me that, I’d recommend inserting a lot more tension and cool details, perhaps ending up with something like this:
Sixteen-year-old Dionara works part-time as a pizza delivery girl… delivering pizzas on the back of her dragon Zorax. In her world, dragons are as common as dogs and cats, and one dragon – the white albino that breathes ice – is prized among all others. As the daughter of a dragon-rancher, Dionara’s older sister Eliana used to own one, for about an hour, until she and the albino were kidnapped together by black market dragon dealers ten years ago.
But when Dionara notices a mysterious new female entree into the world of dragon-fighting tournaments, who happens to ride on an albino dragon, she leaves her pizza-delivering life behind to get back the sister who was stolen from her. Little does she know though that Eliana may have left her dragon-ranching life behind for a reason.
Ooh! Now I’m enticed. Remember, this manuscript isn’t complete yet. It’s barely even begun – there’s no kidnapping or secret reasons written yet, but they make for a more exciting hook. And now, thanks to writing the query letter first, the story has a rock solid starting point that will probably grow into a much stronger manuscript than it would have otherwise.
In the end, you could have best manuscript ever, but if you have a bad query letter, then chances are it won’t get published. Imagine you got to create the perfect resume to submit to your ultimate dream job – it can have literally anything you want on it. You do have that chance… if you choose to write your query letter first.